Scientists with the U.S. space agency NASA Friday said the tiny helicopter they sent to Mars has exceeded their expectations, despite a glitch that forced its fourth flight to be rescheduled.
During a virtual news briefing on the Mars mission, scientists and engineers with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said the Ingenuity helicopter’s first three flights showed them enough capability that they are expanding the operation of the aircraft by 30 days, doubling its originally planned mission time.
NASA had originally described the Ingenuity project as a technology demonstration designed to test flight capability in the thin Martian atmosphere. Project Manager Mi Mi Aung, said it performed so well that it is transitioning from a demonstration to operation phase, in which the craft will be used to show how its unique capabilities can be applied.
Aung told reporters “It’s like Ingenuity is graduating.”
The craft had been scheduled to complete its fourth flight Thursday, but a software glitch prevented it from transitioning to flight mode. If it goes off as planned later Friday, the NASA team hopes to fly it 133 meters from its starting point — more than twice as far as its last flight — taking color pictures of the terrain below before returning to where it started.
Aung said the pictures will be used to put together three-dimensional images of the Martian landscape, from which staff will select a new landing site for the helicopter, which she said will take at least a week. The landing site will be the destination for Ingenuity’s fifth flight.
NASA officials said that the Perseverance rover has, so far, acted in support of the helicopter, transferring data from the craft and taking pictures of its flights. The researchers say communication between the two vehicles is also working better than expected and they now believe they can be as much as a kilometer apart and still maintain strong contact.
The Ingenuity team says the helicopter is providing NASA with data for how future missions will be designed, how those missions will utilize aircraft to explore to determine where rovers should go and explore areas where they cannot.
The 1.8-kilogram aircraft arrived on the planet packed away on NASA’s Perseverance rover when it landed on Mars in February. Aside from solar batteries and a transmitter, Ingenuity carries no scientific instruments.